There’s something uniquely satisfying about watching Kirsten Dunst snarl. Dunst and her on-screen personae appear to relish the opportunity to take advantage of people’s tendency to underestimate them; when a Dunst character taps into her latent anger, the actor brings it to the boiling surface with startling ferocity. Her otherwise cherubic face breaks into a downright ugly fury that’s as shocking to witness as it is vicariously cathartic. It’s a powerful weapon when deployed right — and Dunst has hardly had a firmer grasp on it than she does in “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” (for which she also serves as executive producer).
As Orlando, Fla. single mom Krystal Stubbs, Dunst breathes incandescent life into Robert Funke and Matt Lusky’s tragicomedy — now on Showtime but originally developed for AMC and then the network formerly known as YouTube Red — about poverty, frustration and the American Dream circa 1992. After Krystal finds out just how deep her husband Travis (a disarmingly goofy Alexander Skarsgård) got into a cultish pyramid scheme before suddenly exiting her life, she has to navigate debt and despair without sinking underneath. She’s stubborn, smart and unafraid to piss people off, and yet quickly discovers that disentangling from FAM (the show’s barely veiled facsimile of Amway) is far more difficult than she ever could’ve imagined.
Watching Krystal navigate the myriad dead ends of FAM’s supposedly infallible methodology is so viscerally frustrating that it can be painful. What helps is that the series makes a point of digging into the inherent inequity of the situation, never once losing sight of the fact that Krystal and everyone else trying to stay afloat are doing so from within a fundamentally unfair system, despite FAM’s insistence otherwise. And even while portraying the heartbreaking realities of how such companies prey on the poor and desperate, the series hinges on a pitch-black comedic tone that keeps it off-kilter; the visual style weaves in a creeping strangeness to emphasize the wild hopelessness taking over every character from the inside out. The days are blanched; the nights are overwhelming; the intensity with which people stare at each other, at their futures, and even literally in and out of the camera is as jarring as their inevitable failures. The music, an unequivocal highlight, matches this unsettling vibe with a tense, sparse score and occasional era-appropriate needle drops that never feel gratuitous, which at this point in TV is a genuine feat.
Dunst’s performance is so magnetic that the show could’ve focused on her alone, but it wouldn’t have been half as effective. While Krystal is its undeniable hellion heroine, the series is as much about egocentric scam artists and the widespread devastation they can wreak as it is about Krystal’s struggle to overcome it all. Resistant to Travis’ FAM fanatic in arms, Cody (standout Théodore Pellerin), but in serious need of cash, Krystal at first tries to make the scheme work for her. She even brings her kindly boss Ernie (Mel Rodriguez) into it, promising him and the water park they both work for that their investments will pay off if they believe in themselves hard enough. It’s a line that her husband used on her over and over again, but unlike Travis and Cody, Krystal never was so insecure as to fall for the empty promises that FAM and its blustery luminary Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine) leverage into business. But Ernie, despite his hesitation and wary wife Bets (Beth Ditto), finds himself depressed enough to give in, starting a disastrous chain of events that no one, except perhaps FAM, could have seen coming. Just as Dunst makes Krystal’s fierce willpower a living, breathing thing, the trio of Pellerin, Rodriguez and Levine dig into their characters’ twin demons of insecurity and longing with admirable nuance. (It’s also no coincidence that the men do everything they can to indulge their dreams of being bigger and better, while the women have to clean up after them, a fraught and familiar dynamic that the series interrogates as Krystal works hard to subvert it.)
As Krystal and Cody fall farther into the rabbit hole of FAM, the season loses some of its initial sharpness. Levine’s electric Obie becomes a villain of ridiculous proportions, leading to a bombastic finale that leaves some of the show’s best attributes by the wayside. It feels as though it isn’t quite sure how to get out of the story in one piece — but to be fair, that inability to break through is what drives “On Becoming a God in Central Florida.” Its characters are stuck and flailing, depressed and determined, raw nerves with so much potential lurking just out of reach. Harnessing the sheer power of their frustration to get ahead isn’t pretty, and it’s often very messy, but it’s also all they’ve got — at least, they hope, for now.